Our 5 Favorite Food TV Episodes of 2018
It’s safe to say 2018 was an incredible year for food TV. So where do you start when there’s so much to watch? How about a sampler instead of a binge watch — a taste of the very best of what 2018 had to offer?
This year we left the perfectly lit kitchen and the chew-and-moan style of food travel TV. Television and food both offer these opportunities for connection. Food TV doesn’t have to be cute prattle and quick menus, fraught competitions or glossy adventures. This was the year of digging in.
Television moved beyond highlighting food on a plate: What’s the history of that dish? What can we learn when we go to new places and break bread with new people? What longing is tucked into a pastrami sandwich and slathered with mustard? Here are our top five food TV episodes of 2018.
“Cristina Martinez,” from Chef’s Table — Season 5, Episode 1
“Immigrants know this story all too well,” says Cristina Martinez at the beginning of the episode. “It’s a story of family. Of separation. And this is what I would like to change.”
As an award-winning restaurateur, Cristina Martinez is providing people with a comforting, homestyle experience through barbacoa tacos and community. Yet as an undocumented chef, she hasn’t been able to go to her own home to see her family in years. The episode traces her whole immigration journey: the desire to give her daughter an education that motivated her to leave, her lengthy and difficult journey across the border, her early jobs, the impact of her immigration status on her ability to stay employed, and her journey into activism.
“Fat,” from Salt Fat Acid Heat — Season 1, Episode 1
The magic begins with the opening sequence, where Samin Nosrat wields just a few words and beautiful shots to show us why fat is crucial to creating and eating delicious things. The jaunty Italian soundtrack and the sprawling landscape shots of Italy are like a direct injection of wanderlust. Nosrat is the ideal guide for this adventure; she lived in Italy and speaks fluent Italian throughout the episode.
The whole episode is dreamy, with olive harvesters dangling from plush green trees to the revelation that extra-virgin olive oil is “basically fresh pressed juice” to the seemingly religious experience of tasting red cow Parmesan. There’s a family meal at the end that will just about break your heart because you’re not sitting at that table, eating those tender homemade noodles.
“It’s this harmless little bird that’s packed with some horrific stuff,” says David Chang towards the end of this episode. Unpacking the impact of fried chicken takes him on a series of adventures. He talks to two white chefs about cultural appropriation. He shares a meal with an African American studies professor and reviews racist imagery attached to fried chicken and black people in the kitchen. He travels from New Orleans to Nashville to Tokyo to track down history, authenticity, and the dizzying lullaby of battered chicken hitting hot oil. He digs into race and culture, brings in experts, and offers perspectives that we rarely get in food television. And dotted throughout is Chang’s funky whimsy, like an in-depth McNuggets taste test or a psychedelic cartoon rendering of his first hot chicken experience.
Episode six takes us from humor to sorrow to anger to joy to hunger. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that will make you reconsider your next plate of fried chicken.
“Far West Texas,” from Parts Unknown — Season 12, Episode 5
Anthony Bourdain travels from the cowboy-filled outskirts of West Texas to border towns to Marfa. Plates are filled with glistening, cheese-soaked jalapeño grits and crisp-skinned burritos, to homemade mesquite bean flour empanadas and green onions fresh off the grill. Every meal offers so much more than just lingering shots of beautifully lit dishes.
Bourdain shows us the displacement of the Mexican and Mexican-American population in Marfa because of gentrification, the opportunities and side effects that arrive with a rapidly changing landscape. He takes us to barbecues on the border, introduces us to the rich friendships that cross borders, and reveals the devastating impact a wall would have on this place. And he does it at the table. Over and over again, he creates intimacy by returning to the familiarity of food on the table and people sharing a meal.
“The Jewish Deli” from The Migrant Kitchen, Season 3, Episode 1
Jewish food is rarely in the spotlight, and I’ve never seen a show tackle the Jewish immigrant experience. The Migrant Kitchen traces the history of Factors Deli, a Los Angeles institution where you can eat the kind of authentic Jewish foods that are hard to come by, and Wexler’s, a local farm-to-table deli.
The episode investigates the Jewish-American experience through the lens of food: Who are you as a Jew if you don’t go to synagogue, don’t feel religious, but still feel that longing for culture and home? How can delis provide that in a way that nothing else can? What do we lose if these foods disappear, and how do they bring us together and create community? Come for the glistening shots of matzoh ball soup and pastrami — stay for the deep dive into universal themes from our shared human experience.
What were your favorite episodes this year?